One of the most versatile, iconic, and controversial fashion garments, its evolution throughout history tells the story of how feminism and women's right developed.
The skirt is the second-oldest garment in history. Dating back to the ancient times, skirts were a sign of femineity and were also worn by men.
As time passed, hemlines began to rise. Let's look at its fascinating history.
Skirts have been worn since prehistoric times, used as the simplest way to cover the lower body. Figurines created by the Vinča culture (5700-4500 BC) on the territory of today Serbia and neighboring Balkan nations from the early times of the Copper Age show women in skirt-like garments.
This garment, mainly made of linen, was the standard attire for both men and women in all ancient cultures in the Near East and Egypt. Skirts for the upper classes were made of woven and intricately pleated. Meanwhile, Sumerians wore kaunakes, a type of fur skirt tied to a belt.
The oldest skirt was found in Armenia in 3900 BC, and it was made of straw woven. Skirts were worn by everyone from many cultures such as the lunghi, lehnga, kanga, and sarong in Southeast Asia and South Asia.
Fragment of the reed skirt found in a cavern in southeastern Armenia.
In Southern areas of Western and Central Europe during the Bronze Age, people preferred wraparound dress-like garments. In Northern Europe, however, they wore skirts and blouses.
Early Bronze Age garments.
Moving to the Middle Ages, dress-like garments were used rather than skirts. Men's dresses were much shorter in the lower area compared to women's. They were wide cut and often pleated or gored to be more comfortable while riding horses. Knight's armor also had a short metal skirt below the breastplate.
The earliest known culture to have women wearing clothing similar to miniskirts was the Duan Qun Miao, which translates in Chinese to "short skirt Miao".
In the 19th century, the European cut of women's dresses had a bigger variation than in any other century. It was in the 19th century that skirts went through their first major transformation, in terms of shape rather than practicality. Waistlines started just below the bust, known as the Empire silhouette, and progressively sank to the natural waist.
In the beginning, skirts were narrow, and with time they increased to the hoopskirt and crinoline-supported style of the 1860s. Later, fullness was draped and drawn to the back by using bustles.
The crinoline of 1830 to 1860 was the height mark of large skirts. Layering petticoats, followed by the invention of a hoop "cage", gave skirts their voluminous shape.
19th-century cage crinoline.
The 1890s introduced the rainy daisy skirt for walking or sportswear. A rainy daisy is a type of walking skirt worn during the "Gay Nineties" (1890-1900). Skirts were shortened and were worn by the women part of the "Rainy Day Club". The name was because the short length meant that, by not trailing and soaking up water, they were easier to keep dry in wet weather. Another theory suggests that they were named after Daisy Miller, the heroine of Henry James' 1878 novella.
We call hemline the line formed by the lower edge of a garment, like a skirt, dress, or coat, measured from the floor. Possibly, the hemline is the most variable style line in the industry, it can change shape and range in height from hip-high to floor-length.
In 1908 and 1909, Parisian designers presented a sweeping transformation of fashion in their collections, mostly led by couturier Paul Poiret. From one day to another, the hard S-bend silhouette and the frilly excesses loved by all Edwardian designers was relieved by new dramatic looks. The S-bend corset was changed in favor of a more natural comported version with the body. The silhouette became fluid, and hemlines began to rise above the shoes. The rising hemlines in skirts during the 20th century are thanks to Jeanne Lanvin and Paul Poiret.
1911’s Paul Poiret design.
"It is nothing but short skirts, short jackets, little round bodies, small, narrow shoulders, short sleeves, and the slim, graceful silhouettes.” Fragment of a 1910 report from Ladies Home Journal. And from that year to 1920 skirts started to raise below the ankle.
Skirts will have yet again another drastic change during the 1920s. The Prohibition Era was full of knee-length skirts and dropped waists. Being able to drive, smoke, and vote since 1918, this new woman wore skirts just below the knee, bobbed hair, mary-jane shoes, pearls, and beaded jewelry. This revolutionary garment happened thanks to Coco Chanel.
In 1929, the Great Depression began, and women's fashion returned to a more "feminine" style. Natural waistlines, long skirts, and the invention of the halter neck could be seen in every 30s wardrobe. Those who wanted to rebel against this style used padded shoulder garments.
World War II had a massive impact on the fashion industry. Governments restricted the production and consumption of fashion, obstructing women from their need to express themselves through clothes.
Clothes for women became more masculine and austere, with knee-length skirts, shirts, and jackets being the only style allowed. With men going to war, women were expected to work in roles considered for men. This way, trousers became popular due to their practical nature for working environments.
Nonetheless, the dark times for the fashion industry came to an end in 1947. That date marks the year in which the French designer Christian Dior invented the New Look, a romantic and elegant style, completely different from the simplistic look of the years before. The New Look consisted of a "flower woman", with below the knee to above the ankle length wide skirts, cinched silhouettes, and wasp waists.
The 60s pushed another boundary when British designer Mary Quant shortened the skirt several inches above the knee and created geometric prints. This is how, in 1964, the miniskirt was born, named after Quant’s favorite car, the Mini.
In the following decade, the miniskirt was accompanied by other models, such as the bohemian skirt and the midi skirt. These long trapeze-shaped skirts stopped at the calves, revealing the ankles.
The need to reach higher positions in the workforce began to slowly vanish gender divisions. Power dressing was born in the 80s, promoting women’s pants or skirts pants for women and men’s skirts. On a more youthful side, it was all about extravagant designs with neon colors and eccentric patterns.
Bright colors ended in the 90s, making a way for a more minimalist and grunge fashion. Shorts and very short skirts coexisted with longer models made for the office.
Today, we have a wide range of shapes, colors, lengths, textiles, and patterns to choose from. Reflecting social and political changes and an indication of the role of women in the public space, the skirt is a timeless garment in constant renovation.
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